Where do we go from here? Building an intergenerational progressive movement

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Welcome to rabble.ca's extended series on the Canadian left -- Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- a look at where it stands after the 2011 federal election, and what the future can hold. The series will run in this, rabble.ca's 10th year, and is curated by journalist Murray Dobbin.

When thinking about Canada's current political reality, I think about the importance of leadership in social change work. To explain what I mean, I'll share with you a bit about my own leadership journey and the development of a program that is focused on supporting young leaders committed to social and environmental justice.

The path I walk today is very different from the one I was on 12 years ago.

There are, of course, some key consistencies -- then, as now, I felt strongly that there were better ways for us to be taking care of both people and the planet. But while I knew I wanted to help change the world around me, I didn't know how best to put my passion for a better, more just world into some kind of useful practice.

Some background: I had just been fired for trying to help unionize my workplace, was considering applying to law school, and was educating myself as best I could about globalization. I was also trying to figure out why so many people seemed to have their knickers in a knot about some strange little trade agreement called the Multilateral Agreement on Investment (MAI).

My MAI research brought me and about 20 other people out to a talk at the Vancouver Public Library on a wet Monday evening. As chance would have it, one of those attending the talk was Steve, the local organizer for the Council of Canadians, and someone I had met about three or four times through my MAI research.

After the talk, Steve told me he'd been trying to get in touch but that his emails to me had been bouncing back (my work email had been discontinued). When he asked what I was up to, I said him I was looking for work and he told me to come and see him on Thursday. I did, and he offered me a $250/week job to organize public events around B.C., educating people about the potential impacts of the MAI on public services and democracy. I accepted, and began a journey in social change work that led to co-founding a group called Check Your Head, co-founding a youth voter project called Get Your Vote On, being elected as a School Trustee in Vancouver, and a bunch of other great opportunities.

Possibilities in progressive government

In 2002, I was elected as a School Board Trustee in Vancouver as part of a progressive sweep of civic government in the city. Being a part of a local government I began to understand more thoroughly the limitations and most importantly the possibilities inherent through progressive government. Three years later, the progressive party I was part of had splint in two after divisive and bitter infighting, and the right-wing party in Vancouver was able to retake control of city government. That disheartening experience got me thinking about unity, how people work together and more broadly why and how the neo-liberal movement seemed able to take and hold electoral power. Most importantly, I began thinking about the role of leadership in social change work and how leadership is develop and fostered.

Five years ago, I was talking about both that chance meeting at the library and my experience in civic government with another friend of mine, Seth Klein, the executive director of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives' office in B.C. That conversation started the two of us thinking about how lucky we had been with the mentors we had encountered at the right times in our lives who supported us and opened doors for us when we were starting out in social change work. We also began to consider what else would have been helpful to us when we started doing this work.

Over the 10 years I worked at Check Your Head, I met many amazing young people in their 20s and early 30s who clearly had leadership capacity but who needed support and experience that was more in-depth than what Check had to offer. I'd see some of these folks come and go -- some would stay engaged in social change work and make a place for themselves, while others moved on to other efforts. I often felt as if the opportunities to support these people -- potential future leaders -- were being lost. That experience, coupled with the conversations with Seth, led to an ongoing dialogue about leadership and social change work. If you're young and want to change the world, or your part of it, and live in B.C., where do you go to learn about leadership and social change? There are many leadership programs around, but as a young person where do you go to develop both personal leadership and capacity building skills, build a network of other young leaders who feel like you do, meet social change leaders in your community and get insight into the best progressive policy solutions to many of the environmental and social justice challenges that we face?

The answer to those questions was not forthcoming. In progressive social change work I think we have, for some time, relied on those who have "natural" leadership capacity to simply show up and prove themselves. In essence, we hope that potential young leaders stay around long enough to create a space for themselves in the work.

This strategy is not universal; other groups working for social change have taken a very different approach to leadership development in Canada. For years the Fraser Institute has been identifying and supporting young conservative leaders through its seminar and internship education programs. Preston Manning, one of the founders of the Reform Party of Canada, has founded the Manning Schools through his Manning Centre. The Manning Schools are designed to provide essential education and training to prepare Canada's future political leaders. They include programs called "the school of practical politics," "the school of political management" and "navigating the Faith-Political Interface."

The conservative movement in Canada clearly understands the importance of investing in and training young conservative leaders. And this investment has an impact. Danielle Smith, the 39-year-old leader of Alberta's Wild Rose Alliance, was a Fraser Institute intern and Fazil Mihlar, who is on the Vancouver Sun Editorial board, directed the regulatory studies program at the Fraser Institute. And there are, of course, others who have benefited from this comprehensive conservative mentorship and training strategy, such as Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

In general, the field of progressive social change work does not have an integrated approach to both welcoming and grounding young people. There is a particular disconnect between theory, skills development, mentorship and action, and reflection opportunities. To address this, Seth and I decided to try and develop a program that would provide this kind of opportunity in B.C. This is when Next Up was created, with the goal of putting into practice the understanding that in order to have more leaders, we need to invest in leadership development.

Next Up was born out of conversations, realizations and a belief that thoughtful, meaningful and consistent opportunities for leadership development must be provided to young people committed to social and environmental justice.

The program: The need for a focused agenda

We believe that good solutions to the biggest issues are out there -- and can be realized. We have different approaches to teaching and learning, but we all believe that a new generation of progressive leaders is needed and should be supported. We also believe that there are better ways of taking care of each other and the planet and we look at how to take those ideas and put them into practice.

With that as our starting point, Next Up is a leadership program for young people who are committed to social and environmental justice and who are looking to apply themselves to social change work. Our definition of leadership is that a leader is someone who has the ability to inspire and support others to achieve a common objective or purpose. They don't have to know what it is that they want to do or what area they may want to focus on. It's for people who see themselves making a life in building a better world.

Each Next Up program has 13 or 14 participants between the ages of 18 to 32. The program runs for six months with participants meeting one evening a week and one full Saturday a month. We begin the program with a two-day orientation session during which the cohort takes part in group-building and communication exercises and will go through the course outline, curriculum and expectations. There are two session streams; one stream focuses on solutions, the other on capacity and skills building. Every fourth week we use a full Saturday to allow us to go more in depth on a particular area of skills building.

The solution sessions begin by looking at how social and environmental issues are framed and how that framing impacts debate and the implementation of solutions. Areas examined include foreign policy, trade and economic policy, climate change, health and education, taxation, labour and poverty. The content of the workshops addresses both global and local issues and makes connections between domestic and international policy. For example, examining labour policy allows us to look at issues connected to migrant labour, outsourcing and Canadian immigration policy. We also bring in guests doing social change work from numerous sectors: leaders of trade unions, not-for-profits, social change entrepreneurs and community organizers come to talk about what they do and how they do it.

The capacity-building sessions cover topics such as communication, facilitation, conflict transformation, media training, message framing, building unity and project development.

The program tackles some big questions: what is leadership? What styles of leadership are needed now? What is the narrative of the visions we hold for a better world? How can those narratives be actualized? We also try to give folks a chance to put talk into action by working in groups of two to four on action projects with other organizations in the community.

The program evolves with experience and we are continually working to improve it. Next Up isn't perfect but we try not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Namely, we keep working to improve the program and we keep moving forward.

This year marks the fourth year of Next Up in Vancouver, the second year in Edmonton and the first years in both Saskatoon and Calgary. The organizers come from a wide range of backgrounds in public policy, communications, organizing, and research. We are all involved in social and environmental justice work and we've created this program because we believe that another world is not just possible, but an imperative.

The network: The need for established support systems

The final component of Next Up involves connecting participants with good people doing great work in their communities. The goal is to help the participants expand their networks and to connect them with people who are doing work in their particular areas of interest. It reinforces one of the key goals of NU: to build and support a network of young social change leaders across Canada who will be working together and supporting each other for years to come. NU grads are off working on inspiring and amazing projects all over Canada and other parts of the world. The network is a way for the alumni to stay in touch and to work with each other and a way for them to support the current program participants.

The real lasting power of the program will be in the alumni network and the work that the graduates do once they leave the program and begin working.

There are now just over 100 Next Up graduates. Maintaining four Next Up programs will see an additional 55 grads next year, and more if the program grows to other communities. The alumni are now discussing the role they want to play and how an alumni network can help support both grads and current participants.

In the summer of 2010 we held the first annual NU gathering, which brought together the current and past participants for a weekend on the Sunshine Coast in B.C. Together they worked to talk about social change and consider possible collaboration on social change initiatives. In June of this year we will meet again in Alberta to continue to develop the strength of this dynamic network of present and future leaders.

Stay tuned....

The need for Next Up has become ever more evident over the past few years. We face a growing number of issues such as climate change, economic uncertainty, peak oil, global conflict, public health concerns, growing income and resource disparity, and the list goes on. Many believe this is a unique set of challenges not encountered by previous generations. The recent global economic situation and the mounting evidence of the multiple threats posed by global climate change have only served to underscore the need for a program like Next Up.

What compelled me to accept Steve's offer of a job 12 years ago is also what compelled me to start Next Up. It's a belief, now bolstered by years of research and practice, that the world I want -- one that is more just and more sustainable -- is achievable. That possibility, connected to the hope that comes from the people I meet in the program, makes this more true each day.

So, that's a little bit about a leadership program called Next Up. Hopefully you'll hear more about us in the coming years or -- more importantly -- see more from our grads as they continue to implement their leadership intelligence to affect social and environmental change.

Kevin Millsip, based in Vancouver, is executive director of Next Up. An earlier version of this article appeared in the Spring 2011 edition of Our Schools, Our Selves.

To link other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada -- please click here.

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